PROVO — The last thing on the minds of rescuers who braved fog and frigid temperatures to save a plane-crash victim in January was whether they would be honored for their heroics.
They were absorbed in finding the downed plane, staying out of Utah Lake's icy depths and keeping a victim with a head injury and broken legs alive.
The team saved Gary Bushnell's life — and they also brought national attention to their skill and expertise.
Utah County's team this month won the Mountain Rescue Association's National Lifesaving Award for battling thin ice and freezing water during the dark hours searching for a downed plane on Utah Lake.
"This is the only lifesaving award to be given by the association this year," said Chris Johnson, president of the county's search and rescue team. "It's a huge honor."
Volunteers were working Saturday, Jan. 6, to find a single engine Cessna owned by Bushnell, who had taken Mike Rampton on a test flight.
When the fog closed in, Bushnell became disoriented and smashed onto the ice as he tried to reach the Provo Municipal Airport. The plane penetrated the ice and became locked into the lake about 200 yards from shore.
Bushnell's legs were fractured, and he suffered a serious head wound. As ice and bitingly cold water filled the cabin and pushed the plane's nose into the lake, Rampton managed to pull Bushnell through the rear window and seat him on the wing. Then he left to get help, struggling in the dark across the ice for more than an hour.
Once rescuers came on the scene, volunteer Chris Reed pulled out his Scat II hovercraft, a machine he'd donated for use in nearly 50 rescues. Two rescue sleds and a raft were launched.
Visibility was less than an eighth of a mile, and it was snowing. The ice was 2 inches thick at most, and many of the rescuers fell into the shallow lake more than once.
"I was lucky," said Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Bennett. "I was in a dry suit, which seals you in. You still get cold, but you don't get wet."
Bennett and Reed took the hovercraft out and found 1,000 feet of skid marks that led them to the plane.
There they found Bushnell in bare feet huddled on the wing, wet, shivering and bleeding.
"He said he had given up and was basically lying there waiting to die," Reed said.
Bennett emerged from the hovercraft and started trying to direct the rescue sleds. Meanwhile, Reed managed to drive the hovercraft onto the wing of the swamped airplane and take Bushnell off, even though Bushnell's and Reed's combined weights exceeded the hovercraft's 400-pound weight limit.
"I was able to fly forward and pass along the side of the plane and out onto solid ice," Reed said. "I doubt that will ever happen again. If we had settled even a few more inches into the water we might not have been able to lift, or if we were too high, the hovercraft skirts would not have formed a seal and we would have been stuck on the wing."
It was tricky business — but Reed and Bennett are both quick to downplay their roles. They point to team members Darrell Jensen, Joel Flory, Robert Creer, Shay Lelegren and Lloyd Carter. They recognize Rampton's effort, as well as that of Cory Oaks with the Provo City Fire Department.
"We have just under 50 members with varying skills and talents," Reed said. "Most spend at least $2,000 out of pocket every year, and most everyone has a four-wheel drive.
"It takes a lot of backup support, command, logistics, to make the few that actually make contact with the victim successful."